[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Anthony Drazen | Aired: 10/20/1999]
There was a time in my life – astonishing as it may seem – during which I didn’t really care much as to how much depth or character development the average television show had. Nor had I much motivation to pick individual episodes apart for story details or thematic relevance. And I had little reason to pound out multiple reviews detailing my personal opinions of these episodes ands post them on websites where people would skim through my numerous paragraphs of text, all the while wondering, “Doesn’t this guy have a life?”
During this obviously misguided period of my existence (which I’ll dub “childhood”), my chief priority every time I plopped down in front of that flickering metal box was to have fun. I didn’t quite know how to describe the fun I was after, but I wanted it. And I got it. (Except when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on. Sorry, that show always struck me as boring.)
Now that I’m older, and allegedly wiser, you’d suppose my tastes have changed. But they haven’t, really. When I’m watching a show – any show – I still want to have fun. But now, I’m more adept at noticing the little details in the shows I watch, which can often be just as entertaining as the big picture. In short, I’ve become more skilled at discovering fun.
Now, based on the premise alone, you probably wouldn’t expect a show like The West Wing to put an emphasis on fun. Just how much amusement can be derived from watching characters who spend most of their days balancing budgets and debating tax cuts? But there, as the saying goes, is the rub. The West Wing may sound like a straightforwardly serious drama, but its setting is often just a backdrop for pure, energetic enjoyment.
“The Crackpots and These Women” (god, even the title is fun) is a remarkably subversive episode that just how capable this show is at being purely entertaining without tipping over into unapologetic wackiness. The episode in question takes place on “Big Block of Cheese Day”, a day set aside by Leo for the administration to focus on helping some of the more atypical organizations in the society. Among such clients: A representative of Space Command asking for more intensive study in the field of UFOs, and a group of animal-rights activists who want to build a wolves-only highway, prompted by the death of a grey wolf named “Pluey”.
In lesser hands, this story would be little more than an exercise in silliness. But Sorkin wisely avoids this trap by centralizing the concept with the show’s most grounded character. Leo’s practicality attunes him to the more minor projects the White House can concentrate on – instead of planning complicated, grandiose ventures, he sees it as beneficial to lend an ear to more commonplace and unusual requests. (And these so-called unusual requests are more commonplace than one might think – who, at some point in their life, hasn’t supported an idea that many thought unusual, or even ridiculous?)
It’s a remarkable melding of pragmatism and idealism. By shining a spotlight on the perceived oddballs of the world, Leo shows a remarkable aptitude for helping the everyman, while providing a mouthpiece for those who up till now have kept silent. The younger staffers may joke about Leo’s devotion to a seemingly strange ritual, particularly when said ritual was inspired by a gargantuan slab of dairy product. But the seriousness and delicacy with which Sorkin presents the concept makes this an excellent case for The West Wing’s talent of mixing the various ingredients of liberalism into a fine porridge – not too hot, and not too cold.
Notice also the deftness with which the show personifies its viewpoints. Bartlet and Toby clash horns in this episode, for the first of many times. Bartlet’s philosophy – work on the matters he can, and avoid those he can’t – is countered here by Toby’s insistence to seize any opportunity. But their quarrel goes beyond mere schematics. Both men may be optimistic, but both are also fiercely uncompromising in their opinions. The increasingly heated argument between the two of them shows that tensions between men on the same side can be just as intense as tensions between those of two opposing parties – perhaps even more so.
Bartlet’s anger has a personal edge, too, and the motives behind it will last long past the closing credits of this episode. “I only get mad because I know you’re right a lot of the times,” he tells Toby as the two attempt to reconcile. Toby, more than anyone else on Bartlet’s staff, is willing to sacrifice personal pleasures for the sake of what he feels to be the greater good, even taking individual action in certain cases. The point will first become clear in “In Excelsis Deo” when he arranges an unauthorized funeral for a Vietnam vet, and will occur in several other forms throughout the series. Toby’s moral center is difficult to overcome, a fact that Bartlet, even in his first year in office, knows all too well.
In addition to laying ground for future Toby/Bartlet conflicts, “The Crackpots and these Women” also subtly sets up an arc for Josh that will itself play out in the future. In the opening episodes, Josh often comes off as an arrogant and self-righteous (though loveable!) jerk. This trait of his sometimes works to entertaining effect, as with his denouncing of Mary Marsh in the “Pilot”, and sometimes does not, as seen by his non-developing relationship with Mandy. Here, though, for the first time, it works in the way of serious drama.
When Josh receives an unexpected “calling card” from the NSC guaranteeing him safety in the event of a nuclear attack, it puts his overbearing, think-it-and-say-it attitude at bay. Often one to toot his own horn in the presence of his friends, Josh is surprised – and a little nervous – to learn that he is in fact the only one of the senior staffers to earn this privilege, and that he must keep it a secret from his friends. Josh has constantly celebrated his position of responsibility – but is he truly ready to accept everything that responsibility entails?
What starts as a brief affair with a morality complex soon takes a more disturbing turn. Josh’s concern of being singled out for protection is augmented by memories of his sister, who died in a house fire that he himself escaped. Once before, he was spared a danger that claimed the life of a loved one – now, can he make use an opportunity that may offer the same outcome?
Much of Josh’s predicament here is explored to greater effect in “Noel”, which draws several parallels to this episode: A psychiatrist named Stanley, a key scene that reveals emotions through music – and a surprisingly disturbing look into Josh’s subconscious. “Noel” is more complex – and as a result, more intriguing – than this emotional crux of “The Crackpots and These Women”, but this episode’s reveal of Josh’s fallacy makes his dramatic turn in that episode feel more natural and anticipated.
Josh ultimately declines the offer to join the higher-ups in a protective bunker, choosing instead to stick with his friends through any potential disaster. Bartlet respects his decision, and not only because of the loyalty Josh displays. In a speech he gives at the end of the episode, Bartlet makes it clear that he wants to keep the world free of nuclear war, and filled with ever-growing advancements. This speech distinguishes itself emotionally by being structured as a sendoff Jed makes for his college-bound daughter, and, thanks to its bright and buoyant nature, is perfectly in tune with the show’s freshman season.
“The Crackpots and These Women” is, in fact, probably the closest any episode comes to demonstrating what the first season is about: Pure idealism, filtered through the minds of like-minded people whose disagreements only betray a sense of loyalty that draws them even closer.
Oh… and fun. This season loves to be fun.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The basketball game. I love how Bartlet brings his clever political tactics to the ball court.
+ The continuity reference to the gun bill from “Five Votes Down”.
+ The First Lady’s Ouija Board.
+ None of the staffers generating much excitement over Bartlet cooking dinner, until he reminds them who he is.
+ Bonnie the Grizzly Bear! Say it a few times, it gets funnier.
– Bartlet’s little speech about “these women” feels out-of-place and tacked on.
* Josh utters the immortal line, “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” This phrase plays a key role in the memorable final scene of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”.
* In his toast at the end of this episode, Bartlet announces his goal to make college affordable to a majority of students by the time his four-year term is up. We see his team tackle the problem directly in “College Kids”.